Abigail Hauslohner, Paul Duggan, Jack Gillum and Aaron C. DavisWashington Post
August 18, 2017, 7:32 pm Florence, KY
Late in his senior year of high school, James Fields Jr. was excitedly mapping his future, hoping to join the Army right after graduation. Although his political and social views ran counter to American values – he much preferred authoritarianism and the racial purity dogma of the Third Reich – Fields looked forward to soldiering in democracy’s most powerful military.
That’s how Derek Weimer, his favorite teacher in 2015, remembers it.
Then one day in that spring semester, Fields told Weimer that the Army had turned him down for a reason related to his psychiatric history, Weimer recalled this week. Weimer wasn’t surprised by the rejection, he said, because Fields had confided to him a year earlier that he suffered from schizophrenia and was being treated with drugs to control his illness.
Now Fields, 20, is charged with a deadly act of automotive fury amid the violent clashes Aug. 12 between white-nationalist demonstrators and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Weimer, a former officer in the Kentucky National Guard who taught Fields in a class called America’s Modern Wars, had encouraged his military aspirations and tried to steer him away from neo-Nazism.
“He talked about being an infantryman or possibly a military policeman,” Weimer said. “He wasn’t really an emotional guy, so he wasn’t super in the dumps” about the Army’s decision. “He was just like, ‘Hey, they turned me down.’ He said he had a history of taking antipsychotic meds, and the way his recruiter explained it, he had to be off those meds for a certain amount of time before they’d consider him.”
Weimer’s recollection offers the most specific public clue thus far about the mental state of the driver accused of purposely accelerating his 2010 Dodge Challenger across a crowded pedestrian mall and ramming another car, sending bodies flying during the civil unrest in Charlottesville. A 32-year-old counterprotester, Heather Heyer, was killed and 19 other victims were injured during a day of rage that has consumed the nation and the Trump administration for a week.
As for Fields, who had recently moved to an inexpensive apartment in Ohio, his turbulent formative years in northern Kentucky were marked by reports of abusive behavior toward his disabled mother and a marginal existence since graduating from high school.
At least four times when the boy was in the eighth and ninth grades, Florence police were summoned to his home, mostly by his frantic mother, Samantha Bloom, an IT specialist. It was just the two of them living together, and young James, among other incidents, was reported to have spat in her face, smacked her head with a phone and frightened her with a foot-long knife, according to records of the 911 calls.
Neighbors, in interviews, similarly described a troubled youth who treated his mother cruelly. Bloom, who now lives in Ohio, did not respond to repeated visits and phone messages from The Washington Post. She has told other journalists that she was in the dark about her son’s extremist beliefs. But many people were aware of his infatuation with Hitler, including a group of 20 classmates, three teachers and parent chaperons who traveled to Europe right after graduation. “It was no secret,” one chaperon said. At one point, the group toured Dachau, where thousands of Jews were killed.
Fields eventually did get into the Army, in August 2015, but the Pentagon said that he was discharged from active duty after four months. The reason is unclear.
He found a job as a security guard, making $10.50 an hour, and was on vacation when he was arrested in Charlottesville, charged with second-degree murder and ordered held without bail by a judge. His employer, Securitas Security Services, said he was promptly fired.
Even some white nationalists, fellow travelers, disavowed him.
The Charlottesville rally was organized by right-wing groups to fight the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, and a widely publicized photo taken that day shows Fields posing near the monument with a gaggle of self-proclaimed fascists, members of Vanguard America. Fields and the others are clad in de rigueur baggy khakis and white polo shirts, and each is holding a shield bearing a logo of crossed battle axes, the Vanguard America emblem.
Only Fields’s shield is upside down.
“The driver of the vehicle that hit counterprotesters today was, in no way, a member of Vanguard America,” the fascists later declared.
By then, it was over. Fields, as police tell it, had positioned his gray, two-door muscle car on a narrow street, aiming it at a crowd about 30 yards away as he stomped on the gas pedal at 1:40 p.m., and soon, everyone knew his name.
Boone County, the Kentucky suburb where Fields grew up, is a heavily Republican expanse of middle-class America layered with strip malls and look-alike subdivisions just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. Trump won 68 percent of the Boone vote.
The county’s biggest city is Florence, a bedroom community of 32,000 residents. There, in 2005, Bloom bought a condo in Meadows at Farmview, a complex of gabled, multistory brick dwellings built in a vaguely Tudor style. James, her only child, was 8 at the time.
They lived on Mistflower Lane. In an interview last week, one of their former neighbors, Adolph Dunsing, 91, a retired Marine who served in the South Pacific during World War II, recalled sitting on his second-floor balcony more than a decade ago, watching the boy play by himself in a parking lot.
“The kid had a two-wheeler bicycle, and he used to ride it back and forth out there,” Dunsing remembered. There seemed to be few if any other youngsters who were James’s age. “I felt sorry for the kid,” Dunsing said. “He looked like he was always lost. Always quiet and always alone.”
If James was not already a disturbed child, he would soon become one. For Bloom, a single mother, the anger roiling in her son and his eventual outbursts of violence were just the latest in a litany of personal travails dating to her own youth.
When she was 16 and living with her mother, Judy Bloom, her father showed up one August night at the apartment mother and daughter shared, according to 1984 news accounts. After murdering Judy with a shotgun blast, Marvin Bloom fatally turned the 12-gauge on himself. Samantha was unharmed.
Her son never met his own father, James Alex Fields, who died in a traffic accident caused by a drunk driver five months before James Jr. was born on April 26, 1997.
As for Bloom, she is paralyzed below the waist from an injury in a different car crash. She was in a wheelchair when she purchased the Mistflower Lane condo for $120,000 – and a decade later, long after the housing bubble had burst, she would sell it at a 20 percent loss.
Neighbors there described Bloom as an unfailingly kind and patient parent despite her difficult circumstances.
“She was a good mother to him,” one elderly woman recalled. “She tried, bless her heart.”
Shortly after 11 a.m. on Nov. 20, 2010, Bloom, fearing for her safety, wheeled herself into a bathroom in her third-floor condo, locked the door and dialed the Florence Police Department’s emergency line.
As she described her distress, a 911 call-taker typed all-caps notes that were relayed to a patrol officer headed for Mistflower Lane:
“13 YO MALE TOOK CALLER’S PHONE SMACKED CALLER IN THE HEAD. … IS THE SON. . . . PUT HIS HANDS OVER HER MOUTH. . . . ON MEDS TO CONTROL TEMPER. . . . STARTED BECAUSE CALLER TOLD HIM TO STOP PLAYING VIDEO GAMES TOLD HER THAT HE WOULD BEAT HER UP WAS RESTRAINING CALLER EARLIER SAYS SHE IS AFRAID OF HIM. . . .”
Three months after Bloom told police that her son was behaving violently and that she had locked herself in a bathroom, she dialed 911 again to report that James had run off. Early-morning temperatures in Florence that Sunday, Feb. 20, 2011, were hovering just above freezing.
“HE HAS STILL NOT RETURNED HOME AND THE MOTHER IS CONCERNED ABOUT HIM SINCE HE IS IN SHORTS AND A TSHIRT,” a 911 operator wrote. About two hours later, at 7:47 a.m., police got another call from Bloom: “IS HOME NOW MOTHER SAID HE IS WALKING AROUND THE HOUSE LETHARGIC. . . . NOW BOY SAID HE WOULD RUN IF POLICE ARRIVE. . . .”
The elderly woman, who lives with her husband two floors below Bloom’s former condo and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that when Bloom would ask James to take out the trash, he occasionally would hurl it off their balcony instead.
“He would stand outside the car while Sam was loading up her wheelchair, and watch,” the woman recalled.
The Blooms “had two of the cutest dogs,” she said. “And he’d pull them on a choker. I’d say, ‘Don’t do that, you’re hurting them!’ He’d say, ‘Mind your own business, lady.’ ”
The boy would sometimes scream at his mother in the parking lot, according to the woman and her husband. At one point during Fields’s teen years, Bloom seemed to be physically and emotionally exhausted, she said.
A 911 call from Bloom at 4:38 a.m., Oct. 9, 2011:
“HER JUVENILE SON . . . HAS ASSAULTED HER IN THE PAST, BUT NOT ASSAULTED HER TONIGHT BUT HE IS BEING VERY THREATENING TOWARD HER THE MOTHER IS IN A WHEELCHAIR DOESN’T FEEL IN CONTROL OF THE SITUATION AND IS SCARED. . . .”
Officers responded to the calls but made no arrests, the records show. But then, on Nov. 2, 2011, an acquaintance of Bloom’s reported that James had brandished a 12-inch knife in the condo.
“14 YOM HERE BEEN THREATENING MOM, SPITTING IN HER FACE AND HAS HX OF BEING VIOLENT TWDS HER PUSHING HER THEY WANT TO TAKE HIM TO BE ASSESSED AT HOSP,” a call-taker typed, apparently while speaking with a social worker. “MOM IS SCARED HE IS GOING TO BECOME VIOLENT HERE AND AFRAID TRANSPORT BY HERSELF IN HER VEH.”
The notes continued: “MOTHER SAID LAST NIGHT HE WAS STANDING BEHIND HER” with a knife. “HE DIDN’T THREATEN WITH KNIFE, BUT SCARED MOM TO DEATH NOT KNOWING IF HE WAS GOING TO DO SOMETHING.”
This time, the teen was arrested and sent to a juvenile detention center.
During one stretch, Fields was gone from the complex for several months, separated from his mother, the elderly neighbor said. “And then she got him back.”
At Boone County’s Randall K. Cooper High School, Weimer’s five-month-long course on America’s Modern Wars focused largely on the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, with only about a week devoted to World War II.
But the teacher said Fields was fixated on Hitler’s conquest of Europe, and wrote a three-page homework paper that extolled Nazi ideology and the prowess of the Fuhrer’s armed forces.
Even before then, Weimer said, he had been well aware of Fields’s racist and anti-Semitic beliefs from private discussions he had with Fields during his junior year, when the troubled teenager was in Weimer’s World Civilization class.
“James had a lot of really radical notions in his head,” said Weimer, 46, “and he was really tightly wound around them.”
Weimer, who had become something of a confidant for Fields because of their shared interest in military history, considered this a teaching opportunity.
“I was always challenging his thoughts,” he said. “Always, ‘Hey, James, c’mon, let’s talk about these things.’ ”
It was during one such conversation that Fields described his mental instability, Weimer said: “He was pretty matter-of-fact. He just told me that he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was getting help.”
To Weimer, the mention of a psychosis provided a possible explanation for Fields’s mysterious absence from school during part of his freshman and sophomore years at Cooper High, which has 1,200 students.
Weimer tried to be encouraging with Fields about his condition.
“My thought was, ‘My God, what a hammer blow in life,’ ” he said. “My reaction was, as a teacher, I said: ‘Okay, let’s make this positive. So you have this challenge. And you may have to take meds. But this is something you can rise above. People can deal with this successfully.’ ”
Last year, in a job transfer, Bloom moved from Florence to Maumee, Ohio, a suburb of Toledo. After his brief stint in the Army, Fields joined her there, then rented a place of his own in Maumee, a $450-a-month one-bedroom in a complex called Oak Hill.
Residents stood in clusters outside this week, remembering not the man, who was a stranger to them, but his big loud ride, his tricked-out Challenger, purchased with money left in trust for him by his dead father. It was now a wreck, now evidence, now an alleged murder weapon.
“Tinted windows; the wheels had spikes on ’em,” one woman said.
“Probably thought it looked cool, looked badass, whatever,” added another. “All you’d hear is vroom.”
Hauslohner reported from Kentucky. Duggan, Gillum and Davis reported from Washington. Alice Crites, Julie Tate, Arelis R. Hernández, Steve Friess, Taylor Bach and Jim Higdon contributed to this report.